ASSET-STRIPPING CINEMA FOR LESSONS IN NARRATIVE by John A. A. Logan
Having recently watched Roman Polanski’s 1976 psychological thriller, The Tenant, for the first time, I was struck once again by the degree to which films have influenced me when it comes to narrative structure. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t been influenced far more by the past 400-years’ worth of novels we’ve been gifted to read…but somehow, as Tanita Tikaram put it back in the 80s, cinema has been the Twist in My Sobriety where narrative is concerned.
I’d loved The Fearless Vampire Killers and Rosemary’s Baby, re-watched them many times since initial encounters with them during childhood(!)...
And it seems my response to Polanski duplicates my response to Tarkofsky, or to Knut Hamsun, or to Mikhail Bulgakov, where I seem to fall in love early with one piece of work (Tarkofsky’s Solaris, Hamsun’s Hunger, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita)…this one piece of work then mesmerises me as I watch and re-watch, or read and re-read, through decades, attempting to simultaneously fathom, imbibe, assimilate, ruminate, meditate, on whatever message in the scenes/text has transfixed me.
I feel no need to go on and view/read the other work by the particular artist, in fact I feel protective of the initial encountered masterpiece, not needing any more or wishing to be exposed to risk of disappointment in other work.
It doesn’t always go that way, though…when I encountered D H Lawrence, Philip Roth, Stephen King, Robert Pirsig, Dostoyevsky, Milan Kundera…the desire was to instantly branch out from the first text found and go on to hoover up all the other books available, mainlining the author’s essence…
Kubrick, Powell and Pressburger, Sidney Lumet, same thing…I had to know all and see all of their work once I’d been contacted by it.
Tarkofsky’s Solaris stunned and overwhelmed me on first contact with it.
Aged about 10, viewing it on an old black and white portable TV in the 1970s, my mind slipped off that film’s Teflon surface, but the outer membranes of the subconscious had been penetrated, the film was in there somewhere ever since.
I next tried at 21 to take the film in as a whole, but still my mind could only accommodate its fragments…I watched it in the darkness, in colour this time, while a friend less sympathetic to unlocking the mysteries of 1970s Russian cinema, snored on the floor nearby.
It was only after I’d completed my fifth novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, aged 42, that something had shifted internally, so that when I “re-watched” Solaris for the first time in about twenty years, I was really seeing it all for the first time, I felt the whole film go in, mainlined straight to some mental lobe or nodule that was now ready, I felt it lock into the hard disc permanently, lodged like Polanski’s tenant now is, into the fabric of my being.
Solaris filled me right to the fingertips, or nail-tips…invisible tendrils of tenticular power surging back and forth, pulsing electrically…this could not be contained and wasn’t.
The influence caused a short story to pop out, Napoleon’s Child, the third story in my collection, Storm Damage.
An influence only I could ever see I think…an old man in a desert, visited by apparitions perhaps, or are they real? The wind speaks in that place, the mind a chamber for its own echoes.
But Solaris was still in my system.
Another short story popped out, Unicorn One, the first story in Storm Damage, a hairdresser from a remote Scottish town is selected to be the astronaut for Scotland’s first Independent Space Mission to Mars. Can her mind cope with it?
I could feel the influence of Solaris in the DNA of both stories as I typed…an influence beyond conscious interference…the desert in one story, space in the other…but each set in a zone of seething, black emptiness which turns out not to be empty at all…
Sometimes it is the spirit of the film which possesses.
Werner Herzog’s 1972 cornucopia, Aguirre: Wrath of God, did the same deep-penetration job on my brain, again after a three-decade puzzled flirtatious courtship with peripheral synapses only…one day Aguirre simply shafted my brain to the depths with images I can’t speak of here for fear of spoiling a surprise for somebody.
To be fair, though, this was a double-pronged attack on the poor brain, abetted by my long-delayed first reading of Heart of Darkness in 2006.
It was Aguirre’s spell, along with the trance caused by what is only a passing thematic reference in just the first 7 or so pages of Heart of Darkness, that caused me to spend a year on my third novel, Starnegin’s Camp, set in a forest on the world’s far side two thousand years ago.
2006 also saw a double-viewing of two colossally different masterpieces from what seem opposing ends of the cinematic spectrum.
And, in both cases, on first viewing of the film, I was absolutely confused by what I had seen…I wasn’t sure that I had not just been ripped off or conned or manipulated…
I re-watched each three hour, or three hour plus, film carefully on another day…separate days for each film of course…fully prepared for disappointment or anger at manipulation.
One of the films had seemed to be just too slow for the first two hours, only to detonate at the two-hour point and explode into something heartbreakingly and astonishingly powerful.
This was Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
The other film I had never intended to watch, only to record on VHS…I’d missed the first two minutes, pressed record, had never heard of this 1970s French film before…I couldn’t stop watching though, watched an hour of it which seemed to be enough.
The next day I watched the next hour on tape, and again this seemed to be all my mind could take in.
On the third day I watched the last hour-and-a-half.
Synchronicity entered in then: I had an email from a friend who told me it was sacrilege to watch a film unless it was watched all in one go, as in the cinema. Simultaneously, an Iranian director was on TV saying in an interview that he only ever watched a film in 30 or 60 minute sections, so as to fully assimilate…
This second film watched in three sections was Jacques Rivette’s 1974 classic “story about story-telling”, Celine and Julie Go Boating.
Having been absolutely puzzled by and suspicious of both Barry Lyndon and Celine and Julie Go Boating on first viewing, I re-watched both and on second viewing let myself fall in love.
There was a third viewing of each. A fourth.
Then I showed both films to a friend. Then another friend. And another.
They loved the films too.
Then I started to watch these two films every few months, simply to let it sink in, whatever magic of narrative pace and structure had caused such confusion at first, only to deliver such disproportionate rewards and riches for continued attention.
I know those narrative lessons got into the fabric of the three novels I produced in the following 30-month period, Agency Woman, Starnegin’s Camp, The Survival of Thomas Ford.
It may be that the narrative lessons imbibed from cinema (or TV, like the 1970s TV adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles which still haunts me) enter the mind at a different strata or zone than the lessons assimilated from beloved novels (in my case, I constantly feel the workings of decades-ago-read texts as I explore a new narrative’s possibilities…and I know which texts: The Master and Margarita, Hunger, The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, Notes From Underground, Steppenwolf, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Cain’s Book, A Confederacy of Dunces, The Leopard…earlier than that, Stephen King’s The Stand, It, Thinner, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption…Peter Straub’s Ghost Story…Watership Down…
The books that blow your mind.
The films that blow your mind.
The ones you love, that tap into some deep and secret well-spring of dream and hope which probably/certainly go back beyond Cervantes’s Don Quixote, into the different religious books, or pagan books, or mythical books, that first breathed the inspiros of life into brains drifting between the strata of painting the cave walls…first with beasts real…and then with beasts imaginary…brains hovering between the marks that make images direct…and the marks that signify the logos that can mainline into the brain itself and detonate the fireworks of unforeseeable magic on the great Walls of that Darkest of Caverns.
And today it is Polanski’s Tenant, re-arranging his furniture in the sanctity of my frontal lobes, making noise at night, sitting afraid and strangely clothed in his chair, finding things buried in the walls of that room, screaming his discontent into the black depths and influencing me, terrifyingly, beyond my miniscule power to fathom.